K-ON!! stands as a shining example to the slice of life comedy genre, blending in both aspects so well that it is nearly indiscernible to describe it as one or the other. What it manages to do is (not the impossible, but in some ways, that too) be something that has fun with itself so that everyone can have fun with it as well. The first thing to note about this sequel is how it differs from its predecessor. It is a change that may or may not be welcome by those who love the first season, but it is a change that makes this series into something quite unexpected. Do not expect the quick-paced comedy series that is K-ON!. K-ON!! is a comedy too, but one punctuated with elements of the slice of life genre, putting more focus on the joys of inanity and school life rather than delivering punch-line, joke and gag one after the other. This second season comes with artistic freedom that is more evident than anything else.
This has created a noticeable difference between K-ON! and K-ON!!. The former exists nearly entirely as a comedy with its final episode being quite uncharacteristically "serious" and thoughtful. This kind of emotion runs right into the second season; where it is a bit out of place in the first, it creates a whole different and very welcome world in the sequel. This show is still a light-hearted comedy. That will never change. But it is no longer thoughtless. K-ON!! manages to be the closest thing to accurately portraying teenage girls from their particular background. It captures perfectly the sentiments of these youth getting ready to graduate high school and leave everything they have come to accept as life as they know it. That's perhaps the most wonderful thing about this series.
Yamada and her team understands clearly what teenage girls are like. Which is why they pick up on the small things, like in the OAV when they all check themselves out in the mirror, or in this series, where they doodle nonsense on their whiteboard, pass notes in class, giggle about stupid words like "Lycopene' and whatever else. Of course, not all girls are like this. Not all teenagers are like this. It may seem a bit unreal, but it is a reality to find people who love their high school life and actually cry when time comes to graduate. They recognise that graduating means losing something special, not simply gaining freedom. This seems the focus of the story of the second season of K-ON!.
The first episode will throw anyone off-- it is melancholy and definitely not what anyone would expect. However, when the series has been added up, this first episode seems bumpy merely because it is the episode where the gears are shifted. This, coupled with the first season's final episode, are the ones which changes this series from what it was into what it is now.
As said before, K-ON!! follows the third and last year that Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi spend in their high school. This is a year not where they can spend all their time goofing off playing (or not, as it is the case for them mostly) music. There are more pressing matters to attend to-- sports day, the school trip, cultural festivals, and of course, the ever-impending entrance exams for university. The girls' priorities have been made to change. There is always time for cake and tea... but there has to be time for making sure that they enjoy the most of their final year year in high school. And so the story "changes" from what it was. When it seems that K-ON! is about a group of girls in a band, K-ON!! is about a group of friends spending their last moments with each other and friends before they leave for university. They just happen to be in a band as well.
A lot of viewers may undoubtedly be ticked off for the lack of the "music plot" in this "anime about music". But this anime is not about music. It's about these girls. The hardcore music aficionados or the folks who watched this for the "band" may be upset with the girls' lack of prioritisation for music-making, but cases like that prove the point of this series has been missed. The girls do not get together to make music; they make music because they are together. The band is important to them because of the people in it, not because of what these people do in it or for it. K-ON!! chronicles the friendship of these girls who also happen to be musicians. Things like hanging out with their friends, studying for tests, going to the arcade or concerts-- these are the things that mean the most to them. They're not aiming for "Behind the Music" or the Oricon charts. They just want to make good memories with the people care about. If they make music in the process of doing that, well, that's the bonus.
Whereas the first series is about the girls' lives, the second season does not isolate the girls into just being Houkago Tea Time. There are other people to consider. K-ON!! always pushes for the extra, the unnoticeable, the forgotten or the seemingly irrelevant. It actually creates a personality and identity for its background characters for instance. Usually these people are just relegated to filler, faces painted in, cut-outs who have next to no interaction with the main players in any way. But this anime lets these people have their personalities, lives and relationships without losing focus of who the protagonists are. They exist not to be "faces" but real characters too whether they simply be a graduated upperclassman who will always remember HTT, the loving granny from next door, the girl who sits next to Yui, the band's adoring classmate-fans, Occult Club weirdos or Sawako's old band-mates who have not forgotten what it means to rock some glam-metal even if they are now "proper ladies" in society.
Every character gets developed far more than it was ever expected or perhaps even intended. kakifly might have created these girls, but it is Kyoto Anmation that crafts them into being the characters they are now. Comedies like this do not revel in complexity, but while these girls are no complicated souls, that does not make them any less of being strong, wonderful characters with individual personalities. They began as archetypes to the highest degree, but they have been fleshed out to the point that their individuality now exists. Most importantly, their group dynamic as friends works the best for this series.
K-ON!! handles friendship a lot better than many other shows do. It does not force "the power of friendship!" down anyone's throat, but handles these relationships with sweetness, humour, grace and subtlety that a shallow viewing of this anime can miss entirely. For instance, on the last day of school, Yui offhandedly says she will walk home with Nodoka. This scene has no fuss, no fanfare-- in fact, it's almost unnoticeable that she even says it. But it says so much about Yui, Nodoka and their relationship. They have been friends since the very first day of pre-school. In essence, that is years and years of walking home together after school. Graduation means there will be no more of that, so with her oldest friend, they head home together one last time. There is something just quietly beautiful about that.
Even in moments of cheesy sentimentality, the series is quite aware of it. The older girls give one of their most important performances to the audience of Azusa. It is a scene so dorky and embarrassingly sweet that even she points it out, and we're glad that she does because it needed to be said.
As for the main characters themselves, the show continues to play off of their quirks but it does not fuel the comedy but naturally assimilates to it. We're no longer laughing because of a doofy thing Yui says or does. We're laughing because Yui is doofy, and therefore what she says and does is just something so "her". Yui continues being her silly self, and for that, everyone and the audience loves her. She almost seems incapable of having negative feelings and probably cannot string together a complex thought in her head. So she revels in simplicity, and this manifests itself in some rather touching ways. At one point in the anime, she writes a song for and about her sister. In many ways, Yui herself is unable to express such complex feelings for Ui, but her song is her simple way of saying "Thank you" and "I love you".
Mio becomes less of the poster girl and more of herself. A girl who just might run in the hallways because, hey, being friends with those kooks might just make any stiff loosen up. Ritsu continues being the jokester and ringleader of the HTT circus. Together, this duo makes a great pair of best friends. Their naturalness with each other, the familiarity, the understanding between them comes out in so many understated ways whether it be just sprawling out on a bed just saying nothing, grabbing the other for the hug, or trying not to snicker at one another during performances.
Mugi gets her most dues in the second season. She always had been an "outsider" in the group. Everyone has their counterpart. Mio and Ritsu have one another, Yui has Nodoka and Ui, Azusa has Ui and Jun. But Mugi has been the Phoebe amongst these friends and there is a kind of sadness in that itself. But rather than be melancholy, she seeks to correct it in one of the most surprising episodes of the entire series. Suddenly, Mugi reveals she has a lot more going on than anyone would expect from the refined rich girl. And her importance comes out in other ways; it is a decision she makes for herself that causes the rest of the them to follow suit and follow her.
And of course, finally, there is Azusa who easily has experienced the most emotionally in this series. Or perhaps, she's the only one we get to see do these things because her perspective will forever be different. She is a member of HTT, but she is a younger student and joined the band a year after its conception. There are things she does not feel that the older girls do... but there are also things she feels that they won't. Unlike the other characters, Azusa gets a lot of screen-time devoted to her fears of having to say goodbye to her friends. She does have Ui and Jun (and Jun shows up as a most welcome addition to the cast, being somewhat a mix of Mio's sensibilities and Ritsu's energy and confidence), but they can never fill the void that her upperclassmen will leave. Of course, K-ON!! never gets depressing. Just bittersweet. She takes their graduation with grace. An expected reaction for saying goodbye is the typical passionate "You guys will be going and abandoning me! Sob, sob!" and then hugs and promises of being together forever. Hell no. A lot of criticism for K-ON!! is its supposed childishness, but if it was so, how does it have the maturity to have its youngest main character handle separation so profoundly? Nobody walks around eggshells with Azusa because she's not a run of the mill moody girl. If things are unspoken it is because they know it needn't be said. The problems are never directly addressed because they don't need to be the consuming topic of conversation. There is recognition, and then people move on. And Azusa understands that. Rather than any impassioned goodbyes, she smiles and figures out the best way to let her band-mates know that she will miss them, but more than that, she will be able to continue.
Even the teacher gets her dues in this second season. Sawako of course is a foil to a lot of the hijinks in the series, but she has her role in the girls' lives examined as well. There is a moment where she thumbs through a collection of pictures of the girls, and she smiles in a way so understandably bittersweet that you can't help but be happy and hurt too. There is always so much unspoken love and affection in this series; Sawako just does not remains the quirky teacher who is up to all the hijinks. She's a woman who knows that she's spent the last three years with truly special girls as a teacher, mentor, and a friend. This series has not belittled her position or her feelings. A lot of titles will simply focus on the girls' emotions about leaving. But what about the others seeing them leave? It carefully considers them, which is a warm, pleasant surprise. The girls aren't just moving on from their teacher. The teacher will be saying goodbye to her girls too.
That is another special thing about this series. The way it does not heavy-handedly beat down the emotional parts. The episode of the cultural festival, where HTT performs their final time for the school is easily the best episode of the series, and simply one of the best episodes of anime of all time. If the moment after the performance, when the girls are back in their club room does not have your heart tugging or have you in tears, then your heart is simply made of rock. And not the poppy kind that these girls love. This scene is a moment of pure recognition and pure feeling. It comes at the girls like a kind of wave crashing down on them. The euphoria and adrenaline wears off; no longer are they reeling with excitement from being in front of a room full of people, no more are they pouring their hearts out for their audience. They're in a room just with themselves, and it is here they can belt out the most important and deepest sentiments of their hearts. To one another and their own selves. There is a kind of intimacy in this moment that this anime achieves that many others never, ever are capable of creating. Especially considering that it is handling perhaps a more difficult type of feeling. Romantic emotionalism is possibly the easiest thing to create. Platonic intimacy is not. For that to work, the characters must wholeheartedly feel it and the audience must also truly believe it. This anime accomplishes both.
All these things come together to make a show that works for its praise despite seeming to not do a damn thing at all. Because its subject matter, characters, handling and presentation appears to be so simple, many may consider this series as a sort of "guilty pleasure" or just a show to like "because". You can do that, of course, but don't feel guilty about watching a good show. Seems pointless to, doesn't it?
It shows, through and through, how much was put into making this show. Again, it is a cash cow but consider that if it was, then there would be absolutely no need for the series to dump the fanservice and have the material focus on developing anything. But this anime works on so many levels and exceeds expectations. When K-ON! finished, there had been speculation about whether the second season could ever compare and live up to the "hype". It does, and does more. It uses its hype to do what it wants to do, and that is become an anime more about expressing itself rather than catering to its audience. It is a show made by people who care about the viewers. It does not wish to belittle them by belittling the show. K-ON!! takes kakifly's simple little 4-koma and fleshes it out into a show that surprisingly outdoes its source material.
It goes without saying that this series, like any show, really, is not for everyone. It is not made for everyone. How can any show really cater to the tastes of every single person in the world anyway? So it does not try to do that. This series knows what it wants to be, and so it sings, jumps, laughs, cries and is that thing. Because it remains to true to itself, because Yamada Naoko makes her vision into a reality, because kakifly laid the first bricks for the foundation, K-ON!! can now be hold its head (I would say "proudly", but in the case of this series, probably "cocked to the side with a cheeky grin" would be better) as a series that is not only a great adaptation, but a great anime as well.